Using pure economic power to reorder the world of soccer was clearly a bad idea, though not necessarily a new idea. Some reflections from a conflicted fan of one particular Italian super squad.
MILAN — I'm too young to have witnessed the day my beloved football club — AC Milan — was first bought by a billionaire. And what a billionaire …
Believe it or not, despite their links to the Milan fashion industry and being the personal property for more than 30 years of media-tycoon-turned-troublesome-politician Silvio Berlusconi, the club has working-class roots. In the early days of the sport, the team's supporters were derided as casciavit, the Milanese dialect for "screwdriver," a mocking jab of the humble jobs many had.
When Berlusconi bought the foundering club in 1986, he was ready to pour his millions into the venture. He plundered the best players from the more successful Dutch clubs; flooded the club's coffers with cash; and awarded managers and players seemingly outrageous salaries. Some complained that Berlusconi ruined football, others complained he ruined Italy. I was more apt to agree with the latter, too busy basking in the successive Champions League trophies of my favorite team to worry about moralistic arguments in the field of football.
It was only the last step in a 30-year transformation that big money was inflicting on the beautiful game.
By the time Berlusconi sold the club in 2017, AC Milan was the husk of what he had created. Others richer than him bought other clubs — Chelsea ended up in the hands of Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch and personal friend of Vladimir Putin; Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates acquired Manchester City; Paris Saint-Germain was bought with Qatari cash.
Berlusconi posing with AC Milan jersy in Saronno , Italy, in May 2015 — Photo: Matteo Bazzi/ANSA/ZUMA
Berlusconi could no longer keep up. Towards the end of his tenure, he sought to cut salaries and costs. He didn't succeed and left a failing, languishing, heavily indebted club that hemorrhaged money.
Last week, as plans quickly imploded to create a soccer "Super League", which would have included my squad, plenty of column inches were filled with warnings about the wider significance of the event. Some noted how formerly working-class clubs had opened the gates to uncontrollable, unethical capital — like AC Milan, now owned by the vulture hedge fund Elliott Management, whose heroic deeds include bullying the Argentinian government after it defaulted on its public debt.
Few seemed to have learned the other lessons of the Berlusconi-AC Milan parable.
Others noted that it was only the last step in a 30-year transformation that big money was inflicting on the beautiful game. Others still highlighted how the Super League was only a move for clubs to justify their squandering funds on players: Owners got greedy, chasing an even bigger slice of the TV contracts and advertising pies for themselves.
Few seemed to have learned the other lessons of the Berlusconi-AC Milan parable. In the years before selling, he often complained about how unfair the game was, and called for salary caps and more attention to balance sheets. Money, as even he realized too late, can't solve life's every problem.